Your brand matters. It is the essence of what people think about — and, crucially, how they feel — when they think about your school.
Hopefully, at some point, your marketing department put serious effort into articulating a brand identity that gives shape and coherence to all your institutional communications.
Your brand isn’t static, however. Your context changes and your institution changes, too. Fortunately, unless you’ve undergone some kind of fundamental shift, you probably don’t need to abandon your past branding work and start over.
You might, however, need to make some adjustments to maintain the effectiveness of your messaging.
Here are three common reasons why.
1. To make your brand more accurate
When I ask leadership or marketing teams at a school to tell me about their brand, they will usually describe how they see their institution. They have a picture of who they are and what they’re all about.
If, however, you conduct a survey of that school’s stakeholders — like students, alumni, and faculty — you might get a very different picture. This is something that can make the idea of branding confusing: there is both an intended brand (how we see ourselves) and a perceived brand (how our audience sees us).
It is important to take the time to get some data here. Ask your stakeholders how they see you and the kinds of values and attributes they associate with your school. If what you hear doesn’t line up with your intended brand, that’s an invitation to consider how you might need to shift your intended brand identity so it better aligns with who you actually are rather than who you wish you were.
You might, for instance, think of your campus as innovative. Suppose you discover no one else makes that association but that many do think of your school as approachable. You can find ways to emphasize this in your messaging, bringing alignment between a positive attribute of your school and an important element of your perceived brand.
The more you have this kind of alignment, the more accurate your brand messaging will be. In other words, it will communicate to your audience who you really are.
Why is this important? Two reasons. First, it will give you a better understanding of who your audience should be. Taking the example I just gave, you’ll want to reach out to those who prioritize approachability instead of those interested in innovation. Second, it will help ensure you attract mission-fit students who thrive on your campus because what your messaging led them to expect and what they found are the same.
2. To make your brand more focused
If one issue I often notice with internal branding is that it doesn’t match up with how the school is seen by stakeholders, another is that it isn’t sufficiently focused.
Here’s what I mean. When I ask marketing teams at a small, liberal arts college to tell me what makes their institution unique, I’ll often hear something like, “We’re a smaller college where students experience community and mentoring relationships with faculty who are invested in their growth.”
What’s the problem here? It isn’t that this is inaccurate. This description may fit the school like a glove. Rather, the problem is that it also probably fits four hundred other schools like a glove.
The mistake is building your brand around your notable features. These are attributes of your school that are important but that you share with a whole category of similar schools.
Instead, you need to build your brand around your unique features. Think of these as the things that set your school apart from your peers. Talking about your small class sizes, faculty who care, or innovative curriculum isn’t going to cut it.
Consider an example. High Point University bills itself as ‘the premier life skills university.’ Their brand promise is that they will help students develop in areas like motivation and emotional intelligence that will set them apart on the job market. Not many schools talk about these things prominently or make them the focal point of their program.
One other point worth emphasizing here. When you talk about features, you need to make sure to clarify the benefits they bring as well. You must answer the question, “So what?” For instance, if your school has a unique senior-year research opportunity, explain how this makes an impact on students’ careers or helps them gain admission to graduate programs.
So ask yourself: Is your brand focused enough? Are you only talking about your notable features that place you in a category filled with competitors? Or have you identified the unique selling proposition that sets you apart?
3. To make your brand more relevant
Effective communication is all about contextualization. Even if your brand is accurate and focused, the way you communicate it needs to change as the context around you changes.
There are two aspects to this: form and content.
The form is about how you communicate. The ways you may have reached an audience 10 years ago probably aren’t going to work as well today. Text, for example, seems to keep getting shorter along with attention spans. While longer paragraphs may have worked on your website in the past, today you need to prioritize punchy content that maximizes clarity and brevity.
Take another example. Recently on the Higher Ed Marketer Podcast, I had a fascinating conversation with Rob Clark, creator of That Tall Family, about the growing importance of short-form video content. Thanks to TikTok, this kind of presentation has become a powerful way of reaching audiences. It wasn’t even on the radar screen just a few years ago.
So you need to pay attention to the styles and ways of communication that are reaching your audience today.
The content is about what you’re communicating. A message that resonated strongly with Generation Z might not connect with Generation Alpha, which will soon take their place. Likewise, a theme that struck a cord during the pandemic might leave people cold today.
I’m not suggesting here that you should simply try to discover what your audience wants to hear. You need to be authentic to who you are (see point 1 above). I am suggesting, however, that you look for the aspects of your brand identity that will resonate with your audience and choose ways of describing them that will be accessible.
And how do you do this? There’s no substitute for research. If your resources are tight, you can at least analyze research done by others, like the Pew Research Center’s work on Gen Z.
If you do have the capacity to do so, get some members of your audience to share their impressions of your marketing materials. Ask if they feel fresh or stale, engaging or boring, easy to digest or hard to understand. Find out whether the messaging resonates. Use what you learn to improve the connection with those you’re trying to reach.
Guided Brand Evolution
Your conception of your brand shapes your messaging and strategy. These, in turn, determine how well you’ll reach your audience and attract enough of the right kind of students to your school. That’s why it is important to keep your brand messaging up to date by making sure it is accurate, focused, and relevant.
The process of assessing where you are and figuring out what needs to change isn’t always easy. I’ve worked with many schools that have been happy to have an outside perspective and some insight into what’s working today. If you’d like to have a conversation about how my team can help you evolve your brand for more impactful messaging, let’s talk.
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